From Lone Mountain: King-Cat Comics Stories 2003-2007

From Lone Mountain: King-Cat Comics Stories 2003-2007

John Porcellino, cartoonist, memoirist, poet, and zinester, is one of our greatest comics artists. Many know this; many more should. He remembers places and people beautifully—that is, he does a beautiful job of remembering through art. Increasingly, I find myself drawing an improbable sort of joy from Porcellino’s art, the more improbable because of what I used to think was a great gulf between his experiences and mine. His work has crossed that gulf, in fact persuaded me that it wasn’t there to begin with. That may sound facile—and why shouldn’t art be about the strange and unknown, as well as the worn comforts of the familiar? Actually, Porcellino offers both; he wonders at the world. I suppose that’s what we mean by art making the world larger.

From Lone Mountain, just out now, is Porcellino’s fifth book from Drawn & Quarterly, and the third in a D&Q series reprinting work from his near thirty-year-old, still-ongoing zine King-Cat Comics and Storiesfollowing King-Cat Classix (2007) and Map of My Heart (2009). I am most thankful for it: as good and beautiful a volume of comics as I hope to see this year.

Fans—the kind of fans who call him simply John P—will know that Porcellino has been making zines since his high school days in the mid-eighties: punk zines, art and poetry zines, minicomix. Of course he’s best known for King-Cat, the life’s-work which he launched in 1989 (and which has reached, most recently, issue No. 77). King-Cat, a digest-sized zine assembled by Porcellino alone, is one of comics’ great autobiographical series, a continuing collage of memoirs, anecdotes, reflections, and dreams drawn from his everyday life. It is John P’s best vehicle and calling card, despite a long record of other publications—including (now) five book-length compilations of King-Cat work, plus two original graphic books, numerous zines, several collaborative ventures, and translations of his comics into a handful of languages. Though John P is a known and influential cartoonist, in fact a legend of the small press, venerated by a generation of creators, he continues to be a working-class artist whose work is fueled by the most basic struggle to keep body and soul together and the proverbial roof over his head. He lives lean. From Lone Mountain captures about five years’ work taken from that life.

In the early days (c. 1989-1990), John P put out King-Cat often: every month or two, sometimes twice a month. In recent years, he has tended to put out one or two issues a year. At first he printed King-Cat simply by photocopying it, as zinesters and minicomix artists tend to do; these days it seems he has it offset-printed professionally. Early on, John P’s style was rough, his drawings raw, sometimes to the point of illegibility. Primed by punk, which he discovered in high school, he aimed to express himself and capture something of his life on paper quickly, uninhibitedly, with no concern for straitening notions of craft. In those days, he was studying painting at Northern Illinois University, playing in punk bands, apparently drinking himself almost blind, and drawing loose and ragged. These were, as he says in the introduction to King-Cat Classix, years of “spontaneous creative flow,” when he was a “hormonally charged punk-inspired Rock ‘n’ Roller.” Already, though, he was working out poetic ways to express anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and using his comic to ask hard questions of himself. Almost from the first, King-Cat could be both astringent and lyrical—haunting too.

Within three years of starting King-Cat, Porcellino graduated (and promptly drew a comic in which he imagined using his diploma as toilet paper). He moved on to a series of tough jobs (killing mosquitos, working in a warehouse) and began to develop both a repertoire of themes and a spare, minimalist drawing style that continue to define his work, over twenty-five years later. He has been through a lot in that time: illness, OCD, disability, divorces, dislocations, terrible spells of isolation, and many losses. He carries on—and nothing about the comics field gives me more encouragement than that simple fact.

The back cover of From Lone Mountain bears a blurb from the Los Angeles Times: “The rawness of Porcellino’s work, its unfiltered directness, is the essence of its charm” (this hails from a 2014 review by David Ulin). This statement echoes blurbs for King-Cat Classix that describe his work as “matter-of-fact,” “unpolished,” and “pure” folk art, guileless and immediate. These statements, though, are wrong. Or rather, they do not apply well to King-Cat past the first handful of years. If the early, ratty-line work in Classix (or some of the work collected in Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, 2005) seems rash and punkish, John P’s work since then has been marked by strict attention to detail and a monkish preoccupation with doing simple things very well, indeed as sparsely and cleanly as possible. In recent years King-Cat has been an exquisitely crafted, elegant comic, though often still dark and emotionally raw. Concern for craft appears to have slowed John P down, or perhaps life has gotten in the way of publishing; he tends to work more deliberately now (though for contrast’s sake read his recent South Beloit Journal to see rough diary comics from 2010-2011, what he has described as the “lowest point” in his life—these are naked and visceral, sometimes harrowing). His beautifully simplified or distilled style testifies to, by his own admission, an obsessive scrupulousness, but also the sustaining influence of Zen (his work and website are dotted with Zen stories and aphorisms). From Lone Mountain, which gathers up seven issues of 21st-century King-Cat, reminds us that John P’s comics are works of crystalline form and surpassing loveliness.

The endnotes to From Lone Mountain (in vanishingly small type as usual) suggest an artist who agonizes over fine details. In one, Porcellino recalls redrawing and correcting a single panel so many times that he almost wore holes through the paper. He also recounts the process of cleaning up even a typewritten text page with magnifying glass, whiteout, and ultra-fine technical pen. Nowadays, John P’s Patreon supporters (I am one) are treated to “process” photos that show him minutely adjusting captions and drawings to correct (both on paper and then digitally) even the slightest nuance. So, this is not unpolished, immediate, or matter-of-fact work. Rather, it is work buffed to the highest gloss by an artist who knows what he is after. Though John P’s comics are far from what most readers have been conditioned to expect from comic books, for the attuned reader the work is expressive visual poetry of the highest order: art that removes all inessentials as it searches after a kind of blessed purity of form. Porcellino’s drawings, with their clean, unweighted lines and (usually) minimal or nonexistent shading, remind me of the very sparse drawings of Annie Vallotton (the Good News Bible), and appear to have influenced recent cartoon minimalists such as Simon Moreton (Plans We Made). They are refined almost to the point of disappearance. Yet, for all that, the work retains its early power to knock you right out emotionally. In my lifetime of reading comics, only a handful have moved me to tears; John P has done that many times. That’s not because he’s naïve; it’s because he’s good.

Drastic simplicity in cartooning is an effect that can take a great deal of complex working to achieve. Adam Gopnik suggested as much when he wrote about Spiegelman’s Maus more than thirty years ago: cartooning, he said, is a sign of sophistication, not of raw childishness. At times we, or some of us, acknowledge this fact, as when pouring out just praise for Saul Steinberg’s cartoon minimalism. Yet still we tend to associate pared-down cartooning with the unself-conscious doodling of children. Me, I love the unself-conscious doodling of children, but believe that it takes considerable artistry to create adult work that appears to reinhabit that space. So with John P—yet I confess that in my teaching I have been guilty of putting his work before students precisely because it appears simple and doable. Along with the drawing exercises that Ivan Brunetti proposes in his textbook Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, John P provides my students with an encouraging model of uncluttered and accessible picture-writing that helps break them out of fearful artistic paralysis (the “I can’t draw” syndrome). I have often taught King-Cat No. 75, an issue from 2015 dedicated to the life and death of John P’s cat Maisie, and this issue never fails to elicit tearful empathy from many students, not least because they are blindsided by the comic’s unassuming way of sneaking up to profound issues of mortality and loss. Some praise the story’s effect even as they dismiss the drawing as crude and unsophisticated—but then I find myself taking pains to point out how knowing and elegant the drawings in fact are. King-Cat continually invites us to walk into this trap.

I was reminded of this quality recently when my wife and I went to see a performance by the mask-theater company Mummenschanz, known for its nonverbal, minimalist way of posing simple objects against a dark, empty stage—a style of performance that the troupe’s website describes as “a playful paralanguage that can be understood by all.” This particular performance began with a drawing board under a document camera, at which a silent performer stood, making loose, expressive drawings out of basic shapes, drawings that served as a preview of all we were about to witness. Within minutes, the paralanguage of drawing yielded to that of objects and bodies interacting on the bare stage, but the drawing-performing connection stayed with me, as did the suggestive complexity of those simple drawings. To isolate such minimal shapes against an uncluttered background is to take the “simple” work of doodling and spotlight and magnify it. That is a cultured, practiced move that tricks us, again and again, into thinking that it’s simply spontaneity at work. Though John P’s preferred stage, a digest-sized comic, is obviously unlike that of a theater, I see a likeness. His art can indeed be understood by nearly all, but it takes guts to doodle out the hard stuff of your life in such compacted and poetic form.

From Lone Mountain documents four to five years (2003-2007) of that life, the cumulative weight of which makes for a heartbreaking record of displacement and loss—a bruising span of years. This long passage is marked by moves and transitions and, as his endnotes make clear, the gathering storm of his OCD. Included here is King-Cat No. 64, dated July 2005, which documents John P’s response to the then recent death of his father, Charles Porcellino. That loss, though now some thirteen years back, rises up with stinging vividness through a mix of prose, comics, and single drawings:

Here, in mourning, John P's generally nostalgic and elegiac tone comes into piercing focus. “Endless Bright World," a poignant page of handwritten prose, asks simply, Where's my Dad? (and then the issue ends with a drawing by his father, a blurred, smiley-face doodle). I cannot read this part of the book without stopping to catch my breath. Rawness, yes, but delicate in form, like spun glass.

From Lone Mountain, evocatively titled, evokes loneliness everywhere. The work is often funny, and it’s not always about one man alone, yet what really makes the book click—what makes me glad it’s a book, a collection, not just a stack of King-Cats released over a few years—are the moments when John P, I mean the drawn John P, the artist’s cartoon self, gets out into wild or neglected parts of the world. These moments focus everything. Ever a naturalist and poet of places, Porcellino devotes much of From Lone Mountain to graphic evocations of lonely, observant walks in rugged, or at least not wholly tamed, spots, on brambly frontiers both rural and urban, places where human habitation and human gunk meet stream, field, and hollow. These are sites of nature and concrete, of backwash, trash, and the heart-stopping raw loveliness of the “endless bright world”—sites of respite, perhaps, from our various shocks and heartaches, but also places to realize that in the end we own nothing, and can hold on to nothing, but can only live and let the world pour through us. Comics like “Scott Country Memories” and “Freeman Kame” are records of small adventures in big places, and they end with minor epiphanies in which John is brought to contemplative silence:

These encounters with the rough sublimity of the world, when taken with the whole book’s meditations of evanescence and loss, make From Lone Mountain a real testament. To me, these are simply wonderful comics, seemingly fragile in line, delicate, yet tough at heart, robust and affirming even when desperately dark. The work of John P, simple and yet not simple, opens out into everything that haunts me about the daily art of living.